Collaboration is one of those words of the moment – a bit like “research”. Teachers are told therein lies the key to a self-improving, highly skilled profession, but anyone who understands the daily juggle of planning, marking, data-tracking – let alone actually teaching – will know that it is something easier said than done.
But while doing things differently is never easy, I would call on the teaching profession to take action to ensure that collaboration does not become another top-down agenda, resented and discarded as a box-ticking exercise.
Last term, SSAT visited The Baverstock Academy on the back of hearing reports of something quite special happening there as a result of in-school collaboration.
We undertook interviews with a number of staff and students to determine how this mixed academy in south Birmingham has gone from being in special measures to having a vibrant and positive culture such that nearly every teacher we met was overflowing with enthusiasm for their job, their students and their school. I would advise the more cynically inclined to read on at this point – it was an atmosphere that was hard to resist.
The school attributes its turnaround to a relentless focus on learning and success. Not just the narrow sense of exam success, but success in the sense of being supported to be the best teacher (and learner) you can be, and this being the reward in itself.
This is done through deeply embedded in-house CPD programmes, built into the annual programme, to provide everyday opportunities for collaboration and reflection.
Baverstock has been involved in SSAT’s Teacher Effectiveness and Enhancement Programme (TEEP) since 2006 and, from the foundation this provided for outstanding teaching, they have developed their own approach – the Improving Teacher Programme – which drives the number and consistency of outstanding and good lessons and includes sessions on collaboration, reflection, observation and video analysis. The school also collaborates with universities and initial teacher training providers, running work experience placements to recruit new staff.
Associate head Sharon Simpson explained: “Everyone collaborates: across phases, departments and subjects – the whole school. TEEP helped us to build a common language, purpose and sense of direction. Ofsted in 2012 commented that they saw students using the same common language of learning they saw teachers using.”
The philosophy is: every single person has a skill, and the school’s job is to identify that skill and how it can be used: “That is the bedrock of our approach to teaching and learning.”
The whole-school approach is introduced right from the start. Before taking their own class, a new teacher works with other teachers in a variety of subjects, such as music, PE, art and English. This gives them an understanding of how the school does things and what it wants them to achieve in their class.
This, combined with the constant drive to find, spread and apply new ideas to improve teaching and learning, ensures that teachers operate and develop in a culture of support and share responsibility.
In the words of one lead teacher: “We’re putting ourselves in the position of learners. Nobody sees it as a sign of weakness if you admit you need help.”
A regular question the school gets asked is how they find the time. Thursday afternoons finish at 2:30pm, giving staff 80 minutes of development time in cross-curricular learning groups, with “lots of how-tos being given by everybody and anybody”.
It’s not hard to see the advantages when instituting essential whole-school programmes like literacy within such an environment. But the sharing can and does take place at any time – once teachers are used to openly discussing teaching and learning, ideas and tips can be shared in as little as five minutes.
The school continues to run its policy of free tea and toast in the staffroom to encourage these exchanges. To quote one member of staff: “You stagnate, get stuck in your ways, if you don’t have fresh ideas. That’s why it’s so important to discuss ideas and show others what you are doing.”
Clearly this is an example of collaboration which has required absolute buy-in from senior management as well as the teachers to make the headway it has. Without that leadership buy-in it is difficult to make anything that is an additional “extra” happen, at least in any meaningful or scalable way.
But I would encourage teachers not to feel put off. Everything has to start somewhere, and starting small can still reap benefits.
Back in the mid-2000s, when SSAT was working with Professor David Hargreaves and schools to explore personalising learning, it quickly became apparent that innovation and change cannot be driven forward by schools in isolation: in tandem, the teachers within those schools wishing to reach out to others had to be open to collaboration.
We were working with 55 volunteer “Development and Research Hub” schools to pilot models of school-to-school collaboration with the aim of sharing and instigating change through in-school research projects to improve teaching and learning. This early work taught us that it is impossible to have a culture of innovation (in Prof Hargreaves’ definition, “doing things differently to do them better”) without a culture of collaboration.
We’re still seeking ways now to help apply this lesson. For example, we’ve recently revamped our Subject Radars – communications that we send to SSAT member subject teachers and leaders.
By structuring a research article and a school case study article into a “read it; try it; discuss it” format, I hope we’re providing a quick and easy way to support teachers to kick start a simple and quick routine of discussing, generating and trying ideas.
Drop in a stimulus and most teachers will grab it and run. Ultimately some new, powerful ideas might reach implementation as a result. But the point is – the act of reflecting and discussing together can be as valuable as implementation itself. It breeds habits of mind and an approach to new learning that can help you keep your head up when the daily grind is having the opposite effect.
Last week saw the release of the latest employment figures, and in the media coverage the dichotomy between the skills employers say they want, and the skills (or supposed lack thereof) that many future employees leave school with was once again laid bare.
As ever, attributes such as collaboration, resilience, and reflectiveness were on the wish list of employers (which is why the SSAT National Conference 2014 will focus on how schools through collaboration with stakeholders can create well-rounded learners).
If we consider classroom-based approaches that encompass what we know about engaging children and how they learn, we often arrive at pedagogies such as peer-teaching, group work, or tackling real-life problems through project-based learning.
Such techniques, done well, can make learning not just more meaningful (and perhaps support better retention of learning, which will be important as we move back towards final examinations), but also help students to become collaborative. The story from Baverstock Academy reminds us that, unsurprisingly, using these same techniques well can yield the same benefits for learning with teachers.
So in this sense, whether you commit to collaboration on a small or whole-school scale, what you and your colleagues are modelling for your students is a skill essential to their life chances, that won’t ever go out of demand.
And surely that’s worth something, before you even consider the fulfilment of professional aspiration reported by staff at Baverstock. This is why meaningful collaboration is something that SSAT is determined to help schools and teachers to crack.
Chris Smith is research co-ordinator at SSAT where he also works on the Student Impact programme.
- Read the full Baverstock Academy case study and find out more about the Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme at www.ssatuk.co.uk
- Sign up for a free trial of SSAT’s half-termly communications at www.ssatuk.co.uk/ssat/taster